An Interview with WiseOceans… Stephen Lee from Turtle Watch Camp at Batu Batu Resort
Stephen Lee, Project Coordinator for Turtle Watch Camp has an abundance of advice for those looking for a career in marine conservation.
Get as much experience as possible, create a great CV and cover letter and research what skills you need for your end goal and go out and gain those skills!
Name: Stephen Lee
Job Title: Project Coordinator
Organisation: Turtle Watch Camp at Batu Batu Resort, Tengah Island
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
Throughout my academic career, it became clear that marine conservation tends to be overlooked while terrestrial conservation gets much more attention. Being a scuba diver, I can see first-hand how dire the situation is under the surface and that serious action is needed. The idea of dedicating my life to protecting these vital ecosystems fills me with the kind of purpose I hope everybody in this life gets to feel. Furthermore, I would be lying if I said that being able to live a life surrounded by gorgeous beaches in exotic countries was unappealing.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
Doing extensive volunteer work throughout my degree made it easier to get a job right after graduation, as employers are more concerned with having experience than a perfect GPA.
For my first job after graduating, I chose to work for Turtle Watch Camp at Batu Batu, Tengah Island because the job requires me to design my own conservation project; work with local government officials such as the fisheries department and Marine Parks; monitor coral reefs, deliver results and work within a team. All skills that I would like to further develop as part of my long-term career path.
We also take on volunteers who help with daily tasks and project work. Being able to take what I have learned throughout my career path and use it to help and guide others who are just starting to gain experience towards their ultimate conservation career is both rewarding and a good opportunity for me to develop my mentoring/leadership abilities.
- How did you land your current job/position?
I found the posting for my position with Turtle Watch Camp at Batu Batu, Tengah Island on a Facebook group called Marine Biologist network and job postings. I made contact with the employer, conducted an interview and was accepted. Sometimes it really is that simple. Having a strong CV and well-worded cover letter is obviously very important. Before the Skype interview, I prepared responses to questions that I though the interviewer might ask. Being well-prepared like this shows the potential employers that you are serious about the job.
Turtle Watch Camp at Batu Batu, Tengah Island runs a wide variety of conservation projects aside from the sea turtle hatchery. Some of the side projects involve coral reef monitoring and restoration, beach cleaning and environmental education for hotel guests and staff. Part of why I was chosen amongst the other applicants is because of my prior experience with sea turtles, reef monitoring, managing a large-scale beach clean-up and public speaking. Having a diverse skillset makes it more likely that you will have the necessary experience that the employer is looking for.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
I specifically chose a job that allows me to be in nature while also learning from and working to protect it. Batu Batu is a low impact resort, so the natural environment is still relatively unspoiled. The hours of early morning tranquillity spent searching the beaches for new turtle nests, trekking through the jungle, and especially diving among coral reefs are the best parts of the job for me. Sea turtles are incredible animals and being able to observe and assist them at critical moments in their life, such as laying a nest or being born is a very special experience. The two species of sea turtle that nest on Tengah Island are the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas) and the Hawksbill Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata), both are endangered with the latter classified as critically endangered, which makes the encounters all the more precious.
The resort owners Dato’ Chua and Cher Lassalvy opened the resort with a goal of providing a pleasant resort experience that incorporates an appreciation of the natural environment, which I think is a great way to both enhance guest enjoyment and increase environmental awareness. Dato’ and Cher have remained steadfast allies of Turtle Watch Camp, and anybody in the conservation field knows how important the support of stakeholders is. I absolutely love talking about animals, the ocean and natural history and part of my job involves passing on my knowledge and passion for the natural world to guests. What more could I ask for?
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
In this area, there is little enforcement of laws designed to protect the marine environment and the culture has yet to accept the notion that they depend on their oceans and have a duty to respect and protect it. It can be frustrating and discouraging to work in these circumstances but this is work that desperately needs doing. Many people here do not understand certain key things about conservation that we find simple (eg. Littering and trash burning, overfishing, coral fragility), only because they have never been exposed to this knowledge. Every person whom I educate and whose behaviour I help to improve is a difference made in the collective conservation effort of the region.
There have been a few instances in my career where I have given a local person an “Aha moment” with an explanation of protected areas or fishing regulations. Seeing their face light up once they finally realize that their actions have consequences and that laws are created to help them in the long run is one of the key moments where I know that I have made a difference.
We are still a very young organization but we have started working with local conservation groups and the fisheries department of Johor state to create similar hatcheries around the peripheral islands. We are growing into a network of sea turtle sanctuaries and hopefully this region will soon become a hub for marine conservation and environmental protection within the South China Sea. The Sultan of Johor paid us a visit and offered his support to our efforts. Since then the local people have quickly become more accepting of our work here.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
The longer you stay with a given volunteer organization the better. It takes a certain amount of time to adjust to a new setting and learn valuable skills before you can start to be an asset to them and develop practical experience. You really start to grow in a professional capacity when people start relying on you for your skills and knowledge. If you stay with an organization for only a week or two it’s difficult for them to put you in a position where they can trust you with responsibilities or train you in a complex and nuanced task.
- Are there any skills you never thought you would need but did?
Part of my job at Turtle Watch Camp is to engage the guests of Batu Batu resort, Tengah Island and give educational talks about sea turtles and the marine environment. Guests often bring their kids, which is a great opportunity to shape the next generation into future conservationists.
Communicating with children is not something that I’ve ever had difficulty with but I didn’t think I would be doing it as often as I currently do. Presenting information in a fun, digestible way is important not only for engaging kids, but laypeople, stakeholders, people from a different culture and almost anybody who isn’t in an academic field. In university, we are trained mostly in speaking to peers and colleagues but seldom are we given the task of modifying our language and content to a lay audience. You can’t use specialized vocabulary or complex concepts, but you must respect the intelligence of your audience nonetheless. Always be ready to adapt because no two groups of people are the same.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
Get thinking about your career path early and gain as much field experience as possible if it is within reach. Employers are looking for people with experience at managing projects and delivering results.
A useful and easy way to get started early is to go on jobs boards and imagine you are applying for jobs that would interest you a few years down the line. What skills/experience are they looking for? How would you emphasize the experience you already have and what skills you gained from them? What can you do that will make you stand out to these employers? When looking for short term/summer volunteering opportunities, try and choose organizations that emphasize the skills needed for the jobs that appeal to you. If a job that looked interesting to you required somebody with experience working with local government, or writing funding proposals, try to find a job/internship that highlights these activities.
Some skills are very difficult to develop before actually working a job but there are plenty of skills that can be developed prior to graduating. Those skills include driving, scuba diving, boating, first aid, leadership, presenting, marine species identification, graphic design, video editing, computer programming, geographic information systems and more.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
The Peacock Mantis Shrimp has an incredible colour pattern and is a contender for the best vision of all the invertebrates. It can see 12 colour wavelengths compared to our 3, meaning it can see colours we can’t even imagine. It also attacks its prey with an incredibly fast punch with the acceleration of a .22 calibre bullet. Its punch is so fast it can produce tiny amounts of light and heat.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
While diving near Balicasag island in the Visayas region of the Philippines, an enormous school of Jackfish moved in on my group and began to surround us on all sides. It was like being on the inside of a vase where you could only see outside by looking up, literally every other direction was fish. I got some decent video footage but it was impossible to capture the scope of how many there were. No experience is as vivid as the one you are not expecting.
Wow, so much fantastic advice there Stephen. It sounds like you are achieving great things with Turtle Watch Camp.
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